Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud by Killarney Clary
Phoenix Poets (The University of Chicago Press), 2014; 62 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
As if acid were scattered over the pages of a personal history, Killarney Clary’s fourth collection of poems, Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud, is constructed of plainspoken narrative detail and intentional omission, creating a work of disjointed continuity whose protective membranes are stubbornly opaque in some places and shyly permeable in others. The intellect behind these poems does not reveal itself sequentially; instead it follows a more associative temporality. In a voice fluctuating between detachment, vulnerability, and affectless-ness, the speaker addresses broad subjects of travel and location; the inherent difficulties of romantic relationships; and the failing health and death of one’s parents.
Running beneath these surfaces, to a less overt but equally important degree, are concerns of ecology (illustrated by the appearance of various undomesticated animals) and the collective unconscious, or “hive mind,” which manifests in the repeating motif of bees and in the way the speaker does—or doesn’t—allow her attention to focus. The collective lives not only among members of a group, but also within the individual. Jason Castro’s Scientific American article, “You Have a Hive Mind,” states that “despite our feeling that we are singular, unified agents, we are more like hive minds unto ourselves, our brains abuzz with multiple, often conflicting plans and interests . . .” Indeed, Clary’s untitled prose poems, broken into six sections, synchronously gather and sequester the shared experiences of attachment and break; of youth and aging; of being lost and being found. Employing a poetic form that visually mimics prose, the poet organizes the infinite worlds of the poems into finite, containable pieces—or cells in a honeycomb.
Through the use of concrete nouns, the poet assembles a rich landscape, one sometimes representative and sometimes abstractedly indirect. A poem touching on issues of elder care moves between narrative detail and lyric compression to craft a cosmos objective, reflective, and subjective:
Each rock shifts in Rubio Canyon. Freshly exposed by record-
breaking rainfall, the granite rubble is sore pink. I step swiftly as if
to settle, to pass across.
He’s threatening to break out of the facility, my sister tells me over the
phone, and then together we say, It’s on the train tracks. We practice
Shadow of a cloud but no cloud darkens a tree of night herons. What
if there’s not enough money for the medicine?
Sky, reflected in the water dish, is a bright, deceptive infinity. The
index finger of the empty glove arcs high as if calling for a waiter to
How is tension made palpable, without lineation? One method, demonstrated here, is through exacting verb and adjective choices (exposed; sore; threatening; break; deceptive; empty). Another is through variation within form: While some poems in Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud are written as single, compacted blocks of text, others have a different space/text balance. Always end-stopped, the sections never spill over. But such organization—those cells—cannot make life behave. Numerous spheres—geological, familial, social and ecological—co-exist, intertwine, and feed on one another. Beginning in a landslide, the poem tumbles into the habitation of absences: a father living apart from his adult daughters; a shadow minus its casting object; a water dish for an animal not present; and the glove, missing its hand. Given one thematic context of the book, it might be a glove common to a medical environment. Yet the poet builds an associative bridge from a “medicalized” glove to another microcosm, one where waiters who bring and who take away also wear gloves.
Structure is not only a question of when information is released in a poem, but how—or if—that information appears. Compare the poem above with an earlier existential-romantic-domestic drama. Here, tension emerges in what is referred to, but not explained or illuminated by specifics:
My feet are soft and quiet against the cool floor. Midmorning
I understand there are no birds.
I have gone through the first night, the worst.
Dry gravel ticks, crumbles into rivulets. Sparse grey foliage and its
shadow tremble in a dusty wind. I spent half the party saying goodbye.
You hold your T-shirt at the label, pull it up and off your back and
Why is there still a world for me?
What is described is present in the poem, such as the speaker’s quiet feet, the cool floor, the gravel and grey foliage, and the particular way another removes her or his shirt. These elements contrast with what is allowed to hover, abstracted and unclaimed, in the margins. What are the reasons for the night’s complications? For the last line of the poem, the speaker’s perhaps genuine, perhaps self-loathing, question? Riddled with underground lacuna, the poem remains impassive to the reader’s curiosity, refusing to unveil—or dismiss—the rationale for the speaker’s angst.
Thankfully, sometimes the flip side of being lost is being located and finally, being seen. Linked to the abundance of concrete detail is the poet’s use of figurative language. Here, Help is a sad song playing in the background and a taxi smells like honey. Rooted in the tactile, metaphor and simile infuse these poems with imagery, and also with the possibility of other versions living inside any moment. In The Balloonists, poet and essayist Eula Biss writes: “Women now face the task not only of finding a form that can express what they have lived, but of finding a way to tell new stories about what they can live.” Positioned in this era of eldercare and self-reflection, Clary’s poems step to the brink of imagining a new way of being, born from juggling the challenges of living in the present while simultaneously processing the past.